Out in the trackless sea-lanes where the roving U-boats wait to catch our wallowing transports carrying materials of war overseas, a tremendous heroic service has been done by the fabulous fleet of tiny escort warships of the British and Canadian navies known as corvettes. These rakish deep-sea terriers, 900 tons of fire-power and caprice, shepherd the slow-moving convoys and guard them from lurking perils. It is the story of one of these vessels and her sturdy Canadian crew on an eastward Atlantic crossing from Halifax to the British Isles which is told with tremendous excitement and a pounding sense of the sea in Universal's latest war film, "Corvette K-225," which came to Loew's Criterion yesterday.
Set in 1943, the year of it's release, and starring Randolph Scott as Lieut. Commander MacClain, James Brown as Lt. Paul Cartwright, and Ella Raines (in her very first film) as his sister Joyce, the film follows Corvette K-225, christened the HMCS DONNACONA, as she crosses the Atlantic as part of an escort in a convey to England. During her jouney the crew experience rough seas, Jerries (German planes), and U-boats lurking beneath the dark waters. There is also tension between MacClain "Mac" and some of his officers, particularly Lt. Cartwright. More from the Times Review:
In a virtually documentary treatment of life aboard the K-225, Producer Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, director of the film, have realized the physical strain and torment of work in a rampant corvette. They have pictured with indubitable fidelity the discomforts of an escort vessel's crew—the eternal tossing and rolling of the ship in a moderate sea; her plunging and gyrating in the grip of a North Atlantic gale, with tons of sea water pouring over her, battering and soaking every man.
Also, they have caught the terrible tension of men ever on the alert for the sudden attack of the enemy—either a screaming rain of bombs from the sky or the dark and more deadly torpedo of a submarine prowling beneath the sea. They have whipped up some bristling excitement when attacks of both natures come, especially when the corvette is blasting the insides of the ocean with "ash cans." And they have evidenced the courage and tenacity, the unspoken magnificence, of the men who endure such service. They have turned out a tough, manly film.
While the film runs over 90 minutes, it spends most of it's time focusing on the Donnacona, her readying for sea, her christening, the boarding of the crew, the planning of the voyage, and the charting of her coarse, with lots of nautical talk thrown in. Under a different director or editor the film might have been tighter and focused more on the relations between the members of the crew and their relationship with their commander. As it is these are merely touched on, focusing rather on the role of the Corvette's in the war.
The relationship that is touched on the most is that between MacClain and Paul. The film opens with MacClain receiving shore leave after a difficult mission that started out with 65 men and returned with only 12. However, he asks to have another ship as soon as possible and is given a Corvette, a new type of vessel. "They ain't pretty ships maybe," one of the dock workers comments, "but brother they got an awful lot of guts." MacClain chooses the K-225 and then goes to visit the sister of one of the young men he lost.
Joyce Cartwright is working in the Canteen kitchen when MacClain visits her. He tells her how her brother died when he boarded a U-boat, under MacClain's orders, that blew up. She gets angry that he sent such a kid but later comes to the dock to apologize for her behavior. The two walk to nearby Kings College where they meet her other brother Paul, who is soon to graduate.
Charting the course of the convoy. I want that map table!
When the Donnacona is ready for sea, a mostly greenhorn crew is assigned to her, including Paul Cartwright. MacClain is tougher on him then the other men which angers Paul but which MacClain does to toughen him up and ready him for the hardships ahead.
Ella Raines disappears from the film once the ships sail, but not before kissing MacClain. There's lots of close-up of their course being charted as they make their way across the mid-Atlantic, change course to pick up a raft and lifeboat (no survivors), rejoin the convoy, and get lost during a storm.
The climax of the film is when they see a torpedo trail from a U-boat and engage in open fire, sinking first one sub, and then another. As they limp toward their final destination, they catch up with the rest of the convoy and arrive triumphantly in England where the other boats go past and dip their flags in salute to the crew of the Donnacona. MacClain and Cartwright are now friends after Paul showed great courage and leadership in battle and everyone is happy.
Highlights of the film for me were Ella Raines, Barry Fitzgerald as the only real "old salt" in the crew, and young Robert Mitchum, who shows up in a few scenes and even has some lines (in Cry 'Havoc' (1943), Ella Raines second film which I watched recently, he shows up just long enough to die in her arms).
The Times praises Scott's "beautiful performance as the skipper of the corvette—a restrained and authoritative master, you can tell by the cut of his jib," and also the authentic footage of actual Corvette's and battle footage:
Much of the flavor of the picture may be thankfully credited to the fact that most of its backgrounds and some action were photographed aboard corvettes. Director Rosson and a camera crew spent several months at sea, combing the North Atlantic with the little ships on convoy patrol, and the lash of salt spray and howling sea winds fairly beat in the audience's face. The experience obviously tempered Mr. Rosson's regard for his film, and he has kept the whole thing within a pattern which is impressive and credible.
The HMCS Kitchener (K225) stood in for the Donnacona (background of above photo). It was very active in the war and was the only Canadian Corvette to take part in D-Day. She was scrapped in 1949. It was honored in October of last year.
More photos from the set.
Excerpt from Article on the Canadian Navy in Film:
By far the best of an often mediocre lot when it comes to films portraying the action, adventure and real-life drama of sailors in wartime was Corvette K225. The film, made in 1943, stars Randolph Scott, who turned in a strong performance. But the movie also drew strength from real action footage of actual WWII convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic, which the Royal Canadian Navy is often credited with winning.
Ella Raines with director Richard Rossen
I found a neat little booklet published in 1943, the same year as the film, with sketches by Robert W. Chambers of Halifax in Wartime. The last picture in the booklet shows Kings College.
This post is for the O Canada! Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out all of the other posts honoring Canada and Film!